Sinclair O. Harper


Sinclair O. Harper

Designer – Builder – Administrator – Consultant

Reclamation – Hydraulics – Hoover Dam – All American Canal

Eighteenth National Honor Member Nominated by the University of California Chapter

In this part of the twentieth century, it has become apparent that the resources of the United States are not unlimited, that their value can be exploited prudently only when administered by professional men of outstanding character, practicality, scholarship and a high sense of social responsibility. One requirement and challenge is to tap the billions of kilowatt-hours locked up in our streams and to diminish the rate of loss of water and of soil to the sea. That has been the central motive of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for more than sixty years; and it was the central motive in the career of Sinclair Ollason Harper during his 38-year connection with the bureau.

Sinclair Harper was born June 6, 1883, at Pacific Grove, California. He received his early education there and his teachers advised him to study classic languages. He was diverted from this path by an experience with a makeshift hydraulic plant contrived by him and a small group of his boyhood friends. They had made a paddlewheel in a nearby creek and lined up some pulleys, activated by string used for belts. When newly completed, this hydraulic plant was swept away by a wave in the creek flow. This started the young Harper to ponder the possibility of protecting paddle-wheels, houses, livestock, human beings, and other items from the ferocity of flowing water, unrestrained. The man who was to become one of the world’s leading hydraulic engineers registered soon thereafter as a civil engineering student at the University of California. During his undergraduate days he worked as rodman and instrument man for the Western Pacific Railroad Company.

After graduation from the university in 1907, Mr. Harper first designed a sewerage system for Montrose, Colorado, and then entered the service of the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), only five years after it was created by an act of Congress. His first assignment was on the Uncompahgre Project in Colorado. His potential worth was recognized almost at once, because the next year he was made assistant engineer in charge of topographic and location surveys, estimating, designing, and construction of some of the important features of the Grand Valley Project in Colorado. After ten years, in 1917, he was made project manager.

In 1925, Brother Harper was appointed general superintendent of construction and assistant chief engineer of the Bureau. In that capacity he supervised work on Hoover Dam, the Ail-American Canal, and Grand Coulee Dam. Work on Shasta Dam was also begun at this time. Between 1935 and 1939, he was also chairman of the committee negotiating the compact between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas for the division of the waters of the Rio Grande. In 1940, he was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of science by the University of Colorado.

From that time until his retirement in December, 1944, Dr. Harper was chief engineer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, being in charge of all the bureau’s engineering activities. The last large project under his direction was a 13-mile tunnel, 9-75 feet in diameter, piercing the Continental Divide. This tunnel now carries the water from the western slopes of the range to the Big Thompson River in Colorado, on the eastern side, the longest tunnel ever built without vertical shafts.

Seventeen western states profited from the engineering genius of Sinclair O. Harper. His task involved the wise expenditure of $66,000,000 annually, as averaged over the years 1940 through 1945, for various reclamation projects. During his tenure as chief engineer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, much of the guesswork was taken out of river engineering by information collected in the bureau’s laboratory. One of the many engineering feats planned with the help of models was the Central Valley Project, previously mentioned. The San Joaquin River normally flows northward; it was virtually turned around to flow southward, whereas the Sacramento River, flowing from the north, has contributed its excess to replace the water diverted south from San Joaquin. The Delta Cross Channel, by means of which the flow of the Sacramento River is made to prevent the intrusion of salt water into the largely natural channel that leads the surplus flow to the intake of the Tracy Pumping Plant, is unique. It was designed by employing both a scale hydraulic model of the entire delta and an electronic analog model of the same terrain.

Under Harper as chief engineer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation planned fifteen basin-wide projects, including the Missouri River Basin, which covers one-sixth of the nation’s area. His method involved the complete control and utilization of the water; that is, all of the work in the river basin is planned as a whole.

In 1945, Sinclair Harper moved to Berkeley, California, and established a consulting practice, reporting to his clients on projects in India and Afghanistan. He also served on boards for the U.S. Army Engineers and on an internal commission for the Egyptian government. In Egypt, he reported on hydro-electric power development at Aswan Dam on the Nile River. He was a member of the Board of Consultants, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, on Garrison Dam in North Dakota, the Oahe and Fort Randall Dams in South Dakota, and Harlan County Dam in Nebraska. These Missouri River dams are among the largest earth-fill dams in the world. He was a member of the board of consulting engineers on the Ramapadasagar Dam in Madras, India, in 1947; and later was a member of the board of consultants for the Damodar Valley Corporation in Calcutta, India. This latter is a $300,000,000 flood control, power, and irrigation project.

Sinclair O. Harper was a member of ASCE, the Colorado Society of Engineers, the American Concrete Institute, the Engineers’ Club of San Francisco, Phi Kappa Sigma, the Berkeley Tennis Club, the Masonic Order, the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., and the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. In the Commonwealth Club he served as chairman of the water problems section. He died May 29, 1966.

Harper’s recreation consisted of tennis, motoring and gardening. At the age of 55, he and one of his three sons were the second-ranking tennis doubles team in Colorado. He was initiated into membership as a Chapter Honor Member by the University of California chapter of Chi Epsilon on November 5, 1948, and the Fraternity elevated him to the grade of National Honor Member as part of the program of the Centennial of Engineering at Chicago, Illinois, September 12, 1952. The Illinois Institute of Technology chapter was the host on that occasion.

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